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Language and prejudice

Saturday 1 May 2021

On television a few nights ago, I watched a film I’d never even heard of before - ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’. It’s an elegant black and white Hollywood quality production, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck. While the film evidently campaigns against prejudice in general, it focuses on antisemitism in particular, in a very didactic, combative way. This surprised me because I was not aware that antisemitism was such a powerful force in US society in 1947, when the film was made, but clearly it was. If you have a glance at the Wikipedia entry, you’ll see that the film was critically well-received, quite a success at the box-office, and it ended up winning three Oscars, including Best Film.

The story is intriguing – Gregory Peck plays a journalist who is asked to write an article on antisemitism. He decides that in order to understand the issue properly he has to become a Jew, so that he can base his report on first-hand experience rather than second-hand interviewing. (Interesting that this approach anticipates the ‘New Journalism’ of people like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson by about 20 years!) So, having moved to New York, Peck’s character changes his name from Green to Greenberg… and allows people to make their assumptions. As the story develops, we see various examples of antisemitic discrimination, and how underlying antisemitism disturbs personal relationships, even where least expected.

The film’s subtle and sophisticated script started me thinking about the nature of prejudice, and how discrimination has powerful roots in language – in particular, the way that language can be used as an offensive weapon, with abusive words and phrases. In the film, the journalist has a young son, who has been involved in the ‘game’ of pretending that Daddy is a Jew. This turns nasty when the boy comes home from school crying because other kids have been calling him a “kike” or “dirty yid”. Clearly, this is poisonous language, and to use language like that is unacceptable. So, do you ban such words? And if so, how?

To me, this linked up with the more modern concept of ‘politically correct’ language: of avoiding any language might be considered harmful or disrespectful. However, I reckon there is a certain difference. The film suggests that language which is inherently negative (such as ‘kike’ or ‘nigger’) should simply not be used, whereas the ‘politically correct’ movement proposes replacement terms which are inherently positive, or at least neutral. While I strongly agree with the former idea, I am sceptical about the latter. To propose calling someone with physical disabilities “differently abled” may be seen as (a) clumsy, and (b) fairly futile, since which people will actually use that phrase?

Underlying my scepticism is the question of whether changing the words we use to describe something really changes the reality of that thing. For instance, ‘disability’ clearly means ‘having less ability’ – so is calling such a condition ‘differently abled’ supposed to mean ‘having the same ability, but just not the usual’? A person who avoids using terms like ‘kike’ or ‘nigger’ may in fact still despise people who are Jews or coloured – but simply avoids showing that dislike.

But in the end, perhaps that is the point: that sensitive choice of phrasing is primarily about the speaker’s attitude to the world, not about some abstract ideal of an accurate description of reality. Choice of language often reflects more about who we are, rather than what we are talking about. So, if I choose to call someone a ‘person of colour’, I am saying “I respect who you are” rather than “I notice you have colours in your face” (which all human beings have, after all!)

Which leaves us with the complex issue of how far language reflects social interactions or causes social interactions … and that’s a tricky one!

21 Apr 2021


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